‘Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology’ – edited by Tim Kendall ****

Oxford World’s Classics’ beautifully produced Poetry of the First World War is one of the most important and far-reaching anthologies to have been published in this, World War One’s centenary year.  In his introduction, Kendall, the book’s editor, writes: ‘this anthology represents the work of poets who lived through the First World War, from Thomas Hardy, 74 at war’s outbreak and the unrivalled elder statesman of English letters, to [John] Edgell Rickword, 58 years his junior, who left school to enlist in 1916’.

Kendall’s introduction works well, and his passion about First World War poetry comes across immediately.  He states that he has tried to include poems which are as diverse as possible, making room for those written by the following throughout: ‘Men and women, soldiers and civilians, patriots and pacifists – the poets of the First World War came in all forms’. Kendall describes the way in which, ‘during the First World War, poetry became established as the barometer for the nation’s values: the greater the civilization, the greater its poetic heritage’.  He then goes on to say that ‘pride in their nation’s literary achievements was a common ingredient in the patriotism of soldiers and civilians alike’.

Kendall has made well considered contributions to Poetry of the First World War, and successfully encompasses writers – all from Britain and Ireland, mind – from all walks of life.  The poems which he has selected were penned between 1914 and 1966.  He has also included something a little different; a selection of Music Hall and trench songs relating to, or prevalent at the time of, the conflict.  The dates in which the poems were written – often very precise – have been included too; this is an important yet simple piece of information which is so often missing from poetry anthologies.

As with all Oxford World’s Classics editions, a wealth of important contributory information has been included, from an extensive selection of informative notes, to a large bibliography.  Each poet’s introduction begins with a comprehensive biography, the majority of which relates heavily to their place within the First World War, and all of which have been carefully written.  The chronology of war poets and the conflict which has been provided is a useful tool.

As with most collections of this nature, there is an imbalance between the showcased poets and the number of their poems included; here there are ten by Thomas Hardy and seventeen by Ivor Gurney, for example, but only one from the likes of established names such as A.E. Housman, Lawrence Binyon and David Jones.  Poetry of the First World War is still, however, a very enjoyable, thought-provoking and well considered collection, which deserves a place on every bookshelf.

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‘The Poetic Edda’ – translated by Carolyne Larrington ****

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, which has inspired so much of the literature and media which we in the modern world know and love. Many of the poems in this collection – which has been both translated and edited by Carolyne Larrington – were penned by an unknown writer around the year 1270, and can be found in a medieval Icelandic document, the Codex Regius.  It has not been possible to prove whether these poems came from Iceland or Norway, as experts on the poems have noted that elements of importance are often included from both countries.  It is worth noting that many of the poems within The Poetic Edda were written before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.

In her introduction, Larrington sets out the importance of the poems within The Poetic Edda.  She believes that the collection is ‘comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound’, and that it contains scenes which have been ‘vividly staged’.  Larrington goes on to write that the Edda, incorporating as it does ‘comedy, satire, didactic verse, tragedy, high drama and profoundly moving lament’, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature.  Larrington’s introduction is well written and informative, and is split up into useful sections which deal with such different elements as the Old Norse cosmos and mythological history.

The Poetic Edda ‘contains the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods’.  It traces the exploits of many characters from Icelandic and Norse mythology, from Thor to Sigurd and Brynhild, and their doomed love affair.  In their style, the poems are relatively simple, but they are often profound and always striking in the scenes and imagery which they present.

Larrington’s version of The Poetic Edda has been beautifully translated, and the flow of each poem is perfect.  The narrative voices and structure used in each is coherent and well wrought, and the collection as a whole is absolutely fascinating.  Each poem is different from the next, and every single one is filled with many memorable characters and scenes.  Violence abounds in The Poetic Edda, as do history, passion and emotions.

Oxford World’s Classics’ revised edition of the poems includes a select bibliography and a section on the genealogies of giants, gods and heroes.  Larrington has also chosen to place two new poems within the collection – ‘The Lay of Svipdag’ and ‘The Waking of Angatyr’.  There is also an invaluable section with notes on the meter and style of the poems, which is essential for any student of the work.  Each poem is prefaced by a useful contextual introduction, making The Poetic Edda accessible to all.

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